December 28, 2007

REVIEW: The Great Debaters (B-)

Background: Denzel Washington (American Gangster, Déjà Vu) directs for the second time in his career in The Great Debaters, written by Robert Eisele and based on the true story of the 1935 Wiley College debate team. Starring Nate Parker (Pride), Jurnee Smollett (Gridiron Gang), and the ironically named - and unrelated - Denzel Whitaker (Training Day) as the student debaters, the film also features Washington, Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland), Kimberly Elise (Pride, John Q), and Jon Heard (Sweetland). Despite the star power and feel-good story, the film is sure to get lost in the award competition at this time of the year.

Synopsis: In 1935 at Wiley College in Marshall, TX, professor/debate team coach Melvin B. Talson (Washington) is recruiting for the upcoming season. On the side, he is also helping local sharecroppers form a union, much to the chagrin of local Sheriff Dozier (Heard). The team is selected in predictable fashion, and is anchored by disillusioned cool guy Henry Lowe (Parker), smart and beautiful Samantha Brooke (Smollett), and young yet mature James Farmer, Jr. (D. Whitaker), who is the son of Wiley’s theology professor James Farmer (F. Whitaker). The team rises to prominence while dealing with personal tensions, hormones, Talson’s communist activity, and dangerous racism in the local community. Before long they are off to Harvard for a nationally broadcast debate against the defending champs. Cue every scene from Hoosiers from here through to the end, but replace the basketball court with a debating stage.

I Loved:
+ The relationship between Denzel Whitaker and Forest Whitaker as father and son. It was the best character development in the movie and showed how frighteningly well Forest Whitaker can act.

I Liked:
+ Denzel Whitaker as James Farmer, Jr., who stole every scene he was in. The scene where he confronted a drunk Henry Lowe was especially well done.

I Disliked:
- That the story wasn’t very rich, as interesting story lines were only briefly dipped into, like racism and communism, which only seemed to be there to add some melodrama. But I guess you can only do so much in two hours, and the debate team was the focus.

I Hated:
- The poorly done ending, which was painfully predictable to the point of boredom. After the final speech, you don’t need to draw out the announcement and celebration scenes.

Writing - 8
Acting - 9
Production - 7
Emotional Impact - 7
Music - 5
Significance - 5

Total: 41/50= 82% = B-

Last Word: The Great Debaters is a story of redemption and heartwarming triumph, but it lacks the genuine drama that would have made it an excellent movie. I’m pretty disappointed with Denzel Washington’s work as director here. As in the movie, a lot of his production seemed “canned,” most notably at the end, which was lifted straight from any other underdog-to-champion movie. Any creative effort here would have been an improvement, and Denzel showed he could do that when he directed Antwone Fisher. My favorite scenes featured Forest Whitaker, who makes every character believable. Overall, the acting was the strongest component of The Great Debaters, which never fully reaches its potential. I don’t even think it made me sob, which has to mean something wasn’t done right.

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